image by: Gabriel Flores Romero
It’s that time of year again. No, not the holidays—we’re talking about the flu. But with half of parents believing that flu vaccines can cause the flu, call it the season of misinformation.
About 120 years before the birth of Christ, Mithridates V, king of Pontus, was assassinated by poison. Not yet of age to take the throne, his son Mithridates VI went into hiding, where he began a course of ingesting increasingly large non-lethal doses of various poisons in an effort to become immune to them, lest assassins one day try to dispatch of him in such a manner.
So the story goes, at least. But however true it is, the principle behind mithridatism (as it’s known today) is why vaccines work. Exposure to what doesn’t kill us really can make us stronger by triggering our immune systems to build defenses against them. It doesn’t work with every disease or substances, but it’s effective in so many cases that the course of human history has been drastically altered by the number of diseases we have inoculated ourselves against and the hundreds of millions of lives that have been saved in the process.
Influenza—more commonly known simply as “the flu”—is one type of such disease, and since the 1940s immunization against the flu has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But it’s not saving as many as it could, because misconceptions about flu vaccines continue to abound.
Since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended annual flu vaccination for “everyone 6 months of age and older.” Nonetheless, since that time the CDC reports that number of adults receiving the flu vaccine each year has held steady at slightly above 40 percent. And although during that same period the inoculation of children has increased by almost one-fifth (from 51 percent in 2010 to 59 percent last year), those numbers may be unlikely to change any time soon.
The main reason for that is the belief that flu vaccines can cause the flu. According to the results of a recent survey by Orlando Health, that’s what more than half of American parents believe, despite the fact that this is simply not the case.
This misconception “flabbergast[s]” Dr. William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “I and many others have been saying for over 20 years that you can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I don’t know how to say it any louder. You cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine. That’s a myth.”
“It’s impossible for the flu vaccine to give you the flu,” echoes Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “All of the components, whether it’s the nasal or injectable vaccine, do not constitute the official flu virus.”
This misconception may be rooted in the way immunology was developed. In the late 1700s, Edward Jenner spearheaded the creation of a smallpox vaccine by infecting people with a similar but less virulent disease (cowpox), which conferred immunity against the more deadly disease. Jenner’s process, which involved the transfer of a “live” disease into the person being immunized, did run the risk of making the person sick. Immunization today, however involves only either a “dead” version of virus or only a single virus gene, neither of which can cause influenza.
The Orlando Health survey also found that one-third of parents simply do not believe flu vaccines work. Three logistical realities may contribute to this misconception:
Unlike with the childhood vaccines most of us receive (polio, measles, etc.), immunization against the flu must be given annually to be effective, considering that with each new flu season comes new strains of flu, each of which is an entirely new virus. Because a given vaccine is effective only against particular strains, a vaccinated person remains susceptible to other strains. The flu vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective, so a person is vulnerable to even to the strains against which they have been inoculated during that window.
Various flu-like symptoms can be caused by viruses other than the influenza virus.
Then there is the bugaboo that simply will not die: the belief that vaccines in general cause autism, which is, quite simply, not reality-based yet is believed by 28 percent of the survey’s respondents. “After years of research, we know that the flu vaccine is safe,” says Orlando Health’s Dr. Jean Moorjani. “The flu shot does not cause autism or any other diseases or illnesses. Doctors recommend the flu shot because it is the best way to protect you and your family from the flu.”
But it’s just you and your family who get protection. The concept, called “herd immunity,” is about as simple as it gets in medicine. “The more people who are vaccinated in a community, the lower the risk that influenza will be able to spread even if the vaccine does not perfectly protect against the disease,” the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) Nicole Basta, the lead author of a recent study on the subject, told Reuters earlier this year. “Influenza spreads by creating chains of transmission whereby one infected person infects additional people and those individuals infect others with whom they come in contact.”
But as the researchers noted in the journal Vaccine, at least 70 percent of the populous needs to be vaccinated annually to achieve herd immunity in a community. So for all of us to enjoy the maximum benefits of the flu vaccine, we’ve got a long way to go.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. Contact: [email protected]
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